Remembering Dr John A Milner
By C. Naseer Ahmad
“Kaday roya karoogay, sahnoon yaad karkay” – my memory will bring you to tears someday - are the lyrics of a popular Punjabi song. Memories of friends and loved ones can melt one’s heart and eyes do get wet with tears then.
The human emotion of friendship has its own ways and charms. Often, we have associations that last a lifetime which form the bonds of friendship. But, sometimes you meet special people who easily bond and become friends as if you knew them all your life. Such was the case with Dr John Milner, an eminent scholar, teacher and a loving human being.
Almost a year has passed since the death of Dr Milner on December 31, 2013. He was one of the most eminent scientists who contributed more than 250 book chapters, monographs and journal articles. John was a member of several professional organizations such as the American Society for Nutrition, American Association of Cancer Research, American Chemical Society’s Food and Chemistry Division, the Institute of Food Technology and the International Society of Nutrigenetics/Nutrigenomics. He served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Military Nutrition Research, the US Olympic Committee Dietary Guidelines Task Force, the External Advisory Board for the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, as a member and Vice-Chair for the Counsel of Experts of United States Pharmacopeia Committee on Bioavailability and Nutrient Absorption, a member of the External Advisory Board for the European Commission SeaFood Plus initiative and as the chair of the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Mechanisms Working Group. Dr Milner was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists, and an Honorary Member of the American Dietetic Association.
In his distinguished career, Dr Milner served on the editorial boards for Food and Nutrition Research, Frontiers in Nutrigenomics, Nutrition and Cancer, Nutrfood, Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Journal of Ovarian Research, and The Journal of Medical Foods. He was a Senior Editor for Cancer Prevention Research and promoted research that focused on the physiological importance of dietary bioactive compounds as modifiers of cancer risk and tumor behavior. Most recently, he served as Center Director, Human Nutrition US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.
Braving the frigid climate, an unexpectedly large number of friends and family members gathered at the Normandie Farm Restaurant, Potomac, Maryland. The overflow went from one room to almost four rooms. It was in the words and human emotions that the real measure of Dr Milner as man was felt at the bereavement reception on January 7, 2014. One of the first speakers was Dr Catherine Woteki, USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics. As Professor A. Catharine Ross, Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Pennsylvania State University rose to speak about Dr Milner, “Illinois University trumps PennState” was heard in the room. So Professor Ross yielded the floor to Dr Milner’s colleagues from Illinois University who began to express their feelings and memories about the “John” they knew. Some started to speak but were overtaken by emotions and sat down sobbing. Then came the turn of Cornell University and close family members before the professors from PennState were able to share how Dr Milner served as a guiding light.
“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability,” said Bob Marley. And during the bereavement reception, all speakers honored the integrity and the ability of Dr Milner.
Accidentally, Dr Milner sat next to me at the Embassy Series concert at the Luxembourg Embassy in Washington. Between the musical interludes, buffet line and desserts, we became friends so that by the time we met again at the next Embassy Series concert at the Spanish Ambassador’s residence it seemed that we grew up on the same block. Never did he mention the careers he inspired, the university departments he led or the conferences he spearheaded.
At 7:50pm on December 31, 2013 Dr Milner sent me an email: “We hope that your every wish will come true in 2014 and that it will be filled with happiness, health and prosperity!” It was perhaps one of the last emails sent by him.
The next email I received announced the passing away of Dr Milner. As I tried to compose myself, the words of John Donne written centuries ago came to me: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
The bell may have tolled but his towering legacy lives on. In June 2014, to honor his memory and recognize his contributions to the discipline of nutrition, USDA’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center announced the establishment the John A. Milner Lectureship to benefit mankind not just in US but all over the world, including Pakistan.